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A Deadly Dust

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Opinion Piece

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Asbestos related disease has traditionally afflicted men, but an alarming trend is showing an increase in the number of women who are in the path of this deadly illness.

Australia has an ugly history of asbestos related diseases, and it’s a continual reminder of the shameless use and sale of the product by companies whilst aware of its negative health impacts.

What was initially a concern for the male dominated industries of mining, building and construction has now become a nationwide health alert affecting people of non-industrial workplaces as well such as offices, schools and homes. Unfortunately for women, their non-occupational involvement in these manufacturing-intense industries hasn’t shielded them from the deadly affects of this fibrous mineral.

Asbestos exposure occurred differently for women than for men. In many circumstances, women would be exposed by cleaning their husband’s dusty clothes and sweeping up workshops where asbestos dust lay on the ground. Sometimes women would visit the construction of their new home and clean up after the tradesmen, often ingesting deadly asbestos fibres. Away from the workshop women who worked in department stores and offices may have been exposed to disturbed asbestos that was used for insulation or acoustic dampening. Even as children, young girls would sweep up the dusty rubble after mum and dad ripped out the kitchen or bathroom – their legacy is a deadly cancer 20 to 40 years later.

Research conducted in 2010 by the Cancer Institute of NSW showed that while the rate of asbestos related diseases in men has stabilised since the 1990s, for women, it has continued to increase at a rate of 4.9 per cent per year. This trend means that the current rate of diagnosis for women in their 80s is 7.5 times what it was in the early 1970s 1 

A recent case in Brisbane involved a mother who worked as a secretary for a company in a high-rise building in the city. She was exposed to asbestos during renovations that occurred in the 1980s where dust and fibres from the removal of material was circulated through the air-conditioning vents in the building. Increasingly, all over Australia we’re hearing stories of stay at home mothers and office and retail workers who probably didn’t realise they came into contact with asbestos as they were going about their daily jobs and activities.

It’s important to remember that asbestos disease can strike anyone. It is unusual for someone under 30 years of age to be diagnosed as there is generally a period of 15 to 40 years between exposure to asbestos and the occurrence of disease.

The unique properties of asbestos, such as flexibility, strength and insulation qualities once gave it a reputation as one of the most useful and versatile minerals. Popular in the 1970s, asbestos was used in more than 3000 products around the world, including brake pads, insulation and building materials.

While the use of asbestos in building materials has declined and it ceased to be imported into Australia nearly a decade ago, the high use of asbestos over the past 30 years presents a danger to anyone who is renovating or demolishing houses that were built during that time. The popularity of asbestos means that most houses built between World War II and 1985 should probably be suspected of containing asbestos materials.

Australians love renovating their homes, and with high profile renovation shows on television we can expect to see people being motivated to make improvements around the house. The challenge of renovating also means working with tight budgets and probably completing some of the jobs yourself. It is perhaps not surprising that Australia has one of the highest rates of diagnosis of asbestos related disease in the world and will continue to do so for many years as the time-lagged illness sets into the lungs of people who were exposed more than 20 years ago.

Many government-funded websites have been launched to raise awareness of the dangers of asbestos, helping people understand where it may be found around the home. It’s important to be mindful of the risks and seek professional help if you need to remove it.

If you have been exposed to asbestos, or are concerned that you may have been exposed, it is important to register the nature and circumstances of the exposure on an established database, in case you develop an asbestos related illness in the future. It’s also important to seek urgent legal advice if:

  • you are uncertain where you were exposed to asbestos
  • you were exposed many years ago
  • you renovated your home prior to 1985
  • you have been a smoker
  • your employer is no longer in business

Mesothelioma, asbestosis and pleural disease are all asbestos-related cancers which generally affect the lungs. Initial symptoms of the disease can include breathlessness, fatigue and in some instances pain around the chest or ribs. It’s important to remember that you must seek immediate medical advice if you suspect that you were exposed to asbestos at some stage in your life. 

Joanne Wade is the New South Wales Practice Group Leader for asbestos law at Slater and Gordon

This article appeared in the June/July 2012 issue of 50 Something Magazine